Summarizing the Mark Warkentien Era

The Denver Nuggets have been to the playoffs seven straight seasons and have posted three straight 50 win campaigns for the first time as an NBA franchise. Despite the consistency they have displayed on the court, the front office is once again in a state of flux.

The Nuggets announced today Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman will not have their contracts renewed and thus will cease to be employed by the club at the end of August (Denver Post article, Tomasson article on FanHouse). This is no surprise as Warkentien has been granted permission to speak with other teams about their front office vacancies. Over the previous four seasons the Nuggets have had quite a few cooks around the fire. Warkentien, Chapman, Bret Bearup and George Karl have all had a say in personnel matters and do not forget Stan Kroenke ultimately determines what he is willing to spend which plays a considerable role in player personnel decisions.

Despite the crowded kitchen Warkentien was the head chef and he made a significant mark on the franchise.

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Steven Hunter Traded to Memphis Along With First Round Pick

In a summer where their competition has made transactions that have been splattered all over the headlines the Denver Nuggets have made another low key move. The Nuggets have managed to coerce the Memphis Grizzlies to take on the final year of Steven Hunter’s contract in exchange for a future draft pick.

Dumping Hunter’s salary is no small accomplishment. It will save the Nuggets $3,696,000 in salary and an additional $3,696,000 in luxury tax payments for a total of $7,392,000. (Of course, in reality that amount is reduced by the salary and tax payment on said salary for whoever fills Hunter’s roster spot.)

While it is frustrating to see them give up another first round draft pick, keep in mind that they are getting a premium for what will, hopefully, be a late first rounder. The most you can “sell” a draft pick for is $3 million. For all intents and purposes the Nuggets received almost $7.4 million for one. That is pretty good business.

I have no idea if the trade was made as a salary dump, which is most likely, or if they did it to free up money they want to spend elsewhere, a small possibility. Regardless of the motive, this trade does make it more palatable to take on salary at some point this season.

This trade now leaves the Nuggets with only ten players under contract. Of course, they still have the qualifying offer on the table for Linas Kleiza and an outstanding offer to Anthony Carter. Even if both of those players sign, which I suspect they both will, the Nuggets will have to add at least one player to reach the 13 player minimum.

Who that player is can go a long way towards how successful this trade will be as a basketball transaction. Even though Hunter was trying to work his way back from his latest knee surgery with the intent to play in 2009-10, it has always been clear that George Karl never trusted him. If this trade is indeed a straight salary dump as it appears there can be a basketball component.  If the player who fills Hunter’s vacant roster spot is a player that Karl does trust and can play even a little bit, that will be a plus.

Denver still has not made any this offseason headlines, but once again as with the Lawson trade and the Afflalo trade I think they have made a very solid transaction that will further strengthen the franchise even if it only ends up strengthening the bottom line.

Update: The Nuggets did receive a future second round pick as part of the transaction.  There has been no information released as to whose second round pick it will be and when the Nuggets will receive it.  If the second round pick belongs to the Grizzlies as opposed to another better team whose pick the Grizzlies have the rights to, it could work out like the Atkins trade with Oklahoma City where the Nuggets only drop a few spots in the draft order.

For the Memphis perspective, check out 3 Shades of Blue.

Up-Update: Travis Heath of HoopsWorld, who lives in Denver, is reporting the first round pick the Nuggets traded was protected 1-14 in 2010 and 2011 and 1-10 from 2012 through 2015.  In 2016 it is completely unprotected so Memphis could get the number one pick from the Nuggets in 2016 if things fall apart in Denver.

Plus Travis points out that Denver received a trade exception equal to Hunter’s contract that is good until August 7, 2010.  I am usually all over the trade exceptions, but I forgot all about it today for some reason.

Steven Hunter – A Story of Surgery and Salary

No offense to Steven Hunter, but we are going to start off our offseason analysis with him. Hunter is first up partly because his future as a contributor to the Denver Nuggets is tenuous at best and partly because I need to crank out a quick post.

Hunter was acquired in September of 2007 in the trade that ended the Ricky Sanchez era in Denver. Since that day he has played a total of 120 minutes in a Nugget uniform. In 2008-09 Cheikh Samb played 24 more minutes for the Nuggets than Hunter did and Samb only played 24 minutes as a Nugget.

Hunter had surgery on his right knee during the season and has struggled to return. In fact his playing days may be over. I always thought Hunter was a very serviceable big man, but even when he was healthy George Karl clearly had little faith in him.

The reality of the NBA is Hunter is now more valuable for his contract than his talents as a cager. Hunter has a player option for the last year of his contract at a salary of $3,696,000. It is not a large amount, but any expiring contract has value in the current economic state of the NBA. It is currently the only expiring contract the Nuggets have on the payroll for next season, but players like Anthony Carter, Dahntay Jones and Jason Hart are all candidates for one year deals and Linas Kleiza and to a lesser extent Johan Petro could provide sign and trade options that could be combined with Hunters’ expiring deal to bring back an important piece.

There is also a possibility that Hunter’s injury could lead to the Nuggets receiving an injured player exception up to half of his salary. I do not think that route would be very likely due to the fact that the Nuggets would not only be responsible for Hunter’s salary, but also the salary of the player they sign to replace him. However, if Hunter is unable to return it is possible that his salary could be removed from the Nuggets’ books as long as a league doctor verifies that he is physically unable to play.

Hopefully, Hunter can regain his health and return to action, but regardless of whether or not he can return to the court, he provides ever important salary cap flexibility. Healthy or not, do not expect to see Hunter on the court for Denver in 2009-10.

Prepping for the Trade Deadline

The trade deadline is less than three weeks away and the rumors surrounding the Denver Nuggets have seemed to die down a little since the revelation that Denver scuttled a Linas Kleiza for David Lee deal with the Knickerbockers.  While it may be a waste of time to make up trades and debate nonexistent deals it sure is fun. 

There are two questions the front office will have to determine the answer to over the next seventeen days.  What areas of the roster need to be upgraded?  Is it worth paying the price for that upgrade?

Let’s start off looking at the roster.  The Nuggets have two point guards (Chauncey Billups and Anthony Carter), three shooting guards (J.R. Smith, Dahntay Jones and Sonny Weems), three small forwards (Carmelo Anthony, Linas Kleiza and Renaldo Balkman), one true power forward (Kenyon Martin) and four centers (Nene, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro and Steven Hunter).  Obviously there are players that can play multiple positions, but that is the general breakdown.

Before we start looking at what holes need to be plugged it is important to figure out what the Nuggets have to work with.  The answer is, not much.  As far as expiring contracts they possess a few small ones, but nothing of any size that could bring back a high quality player.  Carter, Birdman and Jones all have expiring contracts while Kleiza and Petro will be restricted free agents, which could be used as expiring contracts should the team they are traded to decline to make a qualifying offer. 

I think we can be pretty confident that the Nuggets will not trade Carter, Jones or Birdman as they are all key players and beloved by George Karl.  Steven Hunter does not have an expiring contract, but it does expire after next season and it could be attractive to teams looking to unload a longer term contract. 

From a draft pick standpoint Denver already traded their 2009 pick to Oklahoma City in the Petro deal, but they do have the future pick from Charlotte.  The Bobcats are one of seven teams who are in the mix for the final playoff spot in the east.  If they somehow make it (John Hollinger’s playoff odd rater has them at roughly a one in four chance to make it) that pick will go to Denver this season.  Such an event would be disappointing as the Nuggets definitely made that trade expecting to get a top ten or higher pick out of the deal.  Even so, that is a nice chip to be able to throw into a trade.  In fact, Chris Sheridan ranked that pick the ninth best trade asset in the NBA this trading deadline.  Would the Nuggets throw that pick into a deal?  Maybe so, but I believe they would rather hold onto it.

Another thing to remember is the Nuggets have a couple of nice trade exceptions to play with as well.  They have a big one with the nearly $10 million left from the Camby trade that was “refreshed” in the Billups deal and the $3 million plus exception from the Atkins trade.  They could land a nice player with either of those and the Bobcats pick, but I doubt that would happen because it would push them back over the luxury tax limit they worked so hard to get under.

In my mind if the Nuggets do any shopping it will be for Hunter’s almost expiring contract and maybe with Sonny Weems tiny contract or Petro’s larger one thrown in for good measure.  Those three amount to roughly $6.25 million and if Denver is willing to part with all three players they might be able to bring back something of use.  However, for the purpose of this article we are going with the presumption that Denver will only be willing to trade Hunter and maybe Weems.  That severely limits what is available to them.

 So now that we know what we are shopping with where are the weaknesses on this team and what solutions may be out there? 

Denver is set at the starting point guard spot with Chauncey.  The backup point spot has been a source of consternation for many Denver fans.  Anthony Carter is a solid backup point guard he is a willing and determined defender, but he is a terrible shooter and his turnover ratio has jumped by roughly a third from last year to this year going from a 12.1 to a 16.1.  He can be effective running the break, but if Denver could acquire a decent defender with a better shot it would help.  Maybe a player like Golden State Warriors rookie C.J. Miles would be a good fit.  Miles is a solid shooter and a good ball handler, but is not the defender Denver would be looking for.  He is also a little on the small side, but he is pretty much the opposite of Anthony Carter and that has appeal for Nugget fans who begin daydreaming about electrocution or their parachute not opening at 10,000 feet when Carter enters the game. 

At shooting guard they have an explosive scorer and budding playmaker, J.R. Smith, the “defensive stopper” and offensive liability in Dahntay Jones and the young prospect in Sonny Weems.  A player who combines the defensive abilities of Dahntay Jones and the offensive abilities of someone not quite as talented as J.R. Smith would be Deshawn Stevenson of the Washington Wizards.  Stevenson has horrible shooting percentages this season, but from 2004-05 through 2007-08 Stevenson shot 38.2%.  I am not scared off by his 27.1% this season because he is only 27 and is playing for a terrible team.  I think the added motivation of playing for a solid team would be exactly what he needs.  Stevenson is no slouch on the defensive end as he actually did a good enough job, at least in his own mind, of defending LeBron James that he decided to call LeBron overrated.  Of course, that ended up backfiring, but he is a capable defender.

Moving on to small forward the Nuggets are pretty well set.  Carmelo Anthony accounts for 35 minutes a night at the small forward spot and is backed up by Linas Kleiza who can be a scoring machine (stress the can).  Denver also has the defensive oriented Renaldo Balkman.  As with shooting guard they have the issue where none of the players are truly two way players.  Ideally Melo becomes a defensive beast and the Nuggets could merge the talents of Kleiza and Balkman and play Renalas Balza, but that is probably not going to happen and even if they could somehow pull it off, I bet it is against the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  It is difficult to find a player who would come cheap enough for the Nuggets to acquire that I would prefer to play ahead of either Kleiza or Balkman. 

As I pointed out above, the Nuggets really only have one true power forward on the roster, Kenyon, but there are a handful of players who can fill time there.  Many people consider Nene a power forward, including Nene himself, but in today’s NBA he is a center who can play power forward.  The bottom line is the Nuggets certainly could use another power forward.  We already mentioned the David Lee for Linas Kleiza deal, but we can put that one to bed as George Karl has shot down any deal involving Kleiza such as the Ron Artest deal from last season.  Surely the Knicks will need more than Hunter to do the deal and it is questionable if Denver would throw in the Charlotte pick to close the deal (personally I would).  The only players I can think of that would come cheap would be Joe Smith from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Hakim Warrick from Memphis or Minnesota Timberwolf Craig Smith.  Even someone like Joe Smith, who has an expiring contract, may be out of the Nuggets price range though.

The Nuggets are pretty well set at center with Nene and Birdman soaking up most of the minutes and Kenyon able to play in the pivot against small centers (he even played some center against Yao Ming to predictable results).  Denver already brought in their insurance policy with Johan Petro and Hunter himself sounds like he may be able to play in March.  I do not see the need or motivation to make a move to bring in another center.

Going through position by position it certainly seems like the Nuggets have a pretty solid roster.  In my mind apart from worrying about strengthening a specific position one thing which would make the Nuggets a better team would be to add another scorer they could bring off the bench.  That may sound silly with LK and J.R. on the team, but the reason J.R. Smith does not start is because George Karl does not want to have the entire bench scoring load fall on Kleiza.  If LK is having an off night, Denver will have to rely completely on the starters for offense.  If Denver could add another scorer to come off the bench Karl could comfortably move Smith into the starting lineup. 

Who could fill that role?  Honestly, there was no one that I think was cheap, available and capable that I did not already mention so I will throw it to you all.  Who do you think Denver could acquire for very little, is available, makes less (probably much less) than $6.25 million and could provide some punch off the bench?  I did come up with Lenardo Barbosa, but his defense is just too poor for my taste.

In conclusion, I believe that this is a pretty solid roster and the proof is in the fact that many pundits think the Nuggets have a great shot at earning the second seed in the west.  On the other hand this team is clearly not on the level of the Lakers and I would not like my chances against the Hornets or Spurs in a playoff series either.  They do need an upgrade at some point to be a true contender. 

Building a championship team is a process.   Even in Boston, where Danny Ainge seemed to concoct a championship team out of thin air, it took a few years to coddle together the assets that he used to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all while keeping a competent enough cast around them to win. 

That is what makes the 2009 trading deadline so difficult for the Nuggets’ front office.  Denver is closer to being a title contender than they have been in over 20 years, but if you pull the trigger on the wrong deal in an attempt to push them over the top you might have disrupted the building process that may have resulted in putting together a championship roster in another season or two. 

All salary information was from Storyteller’s NBA Contracts